Study Hall

Study Hall

My mother passed away in November, and ever since, I’ve been writing about her and my dad, who passed nine years ago. This is the third such blog post in a row. These last months, I’ve been writing in threes. I expanded one of my poems into three parts and called it a triptych. Then I put three thematically linked short stories into a chapbook—sub-titled that too, “A Triptych.” The number three has always seemed magical to me. Now, I’m aware that most readers will scroll on by when a writer is talking literary-crap, especially when she gets metaphysical. But this isn’t about writing in threes. It’s an apology to those who follow my blog, for writing yet another piece about my mom and dad. If you accept the apology and stay with me, you’ll get to meet my parents when they were young. In fact, you and I can sit behind my mom in her senior year study hall! We’ll think about love, about the people who raised us. Even when we’re adults, we don’t really know them. In those familiar people are (or were) people we never met. In them, there were lovers, people seeking and growing in intimacy. That part of them, we can’t quite imagine.

Take a look at the picture above. It’s around 1950. My dad, Oiva, sits to the left, then my mom, Rauha, and next to her are their lifelong companions—my mother’s best friend Elsie, who married my dad’s older brother Waino, mid-bite to her left. I don’t know precisely when the photo was taken, but it must have been before my mom and dad were married. She and Elsie were still in high school when they met my dad and his brother. Mom’s hair in this photo is much like it was in her senior class picture. By the time of her wedding photos, it was short, so this has to be earlier. I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time to write about this picture. They are all so young and vibrant and vital—there had to be a story there.

Suddenly, two weeks ago, the story emerged. I walked out to the mailbox one day to find, among the bills and magazines, a card from my cousin Laura. She’d called me when she heard about Mom’s passing, but in my distraction in the months since, I’d forgotten an important piece of our conversation. I’d forgotten to be watching for a letter.

Years ago, Laura’s father, the youngest Salli brother, took over ownership of the family farm, which while my grandparents were alive had been home to many of us. My family lived there with Grandma and Grandpa the year I was in first grade, and Waino and Elsie lived there with Grandpa for part of his last years. The closets in the house, especially upstairs, bulged with forgotten belongings that Laura and her mother have gradually gone through, returning things when they could figure out whose they were.

I found tucked into that card from Laura a long letter that, amazingly, my mother had written to my father one morning in study hall. It reads at the top right side, “Monday 10:05 A.M.” followed on the next line by “Study Hall.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Holding those yellowed sheets of notebook paper in my hand, then beginning to read, I saw the pure gift those pages were for my siblings and me. Out of them rose our mother’s late girlhood, her voice speaking intimately to the man she hoped rather than knew, at that point, would become her husband.

Cousin Laura reported that she’d found the letter in a small box in one of the closets upstairs, along with recipes and pamphlets from the Department of Agriculture. My father had obviously saved it. He’d taken a summer course on agriculture at the university, so he might have put those things into that box himself. By neglect and chance, the letter had survived the years to land in my mailbox after our parents were gone. I’m going to share parts of it, only parts, reserving the whole for my family to cherish.

“Monday 10:05 A.M.”

Not just “Monday,” but “10:05.” That detail so perfectly captures yearning, the way minutes can seem like never-ending eons when you’re first in love and apart from your beloved. At the start of the letter, she writes, “Seems as though I can’t concentrate on anything this morning. I was reading the Newsweek in Economics last hour. At the present time I can’t remember a thing I read. My mind is always with you.” She and Dad had been out the night before. She goes on to say, “Last night, I mean this morning, when I got in, I didn’t even set my hair. This morning everybody said, ‘I know you were out last night.’” My mother’s not setting her hair was unusual—she always took great care with her appearance. As for studying, she writes, coyly, “It’s quite an impossibility trying to get A’s on report cards when there’s ‘someone like you’ to study.”

It’s clear she admires and is playing with ideas—that “someone like you to study.” And her word choice! At the present time. Quite an impossibility. This playing with language was something I’d not seen in her before reading the letter. By the time Mom was our mom, she didn’t speak like that, trying on styles and words. She was quiet, plainspoken. When she wrote the letter, she was eighteen—exploring, experimenting, very open as to who she might become. Of course, she was also at the point in life where she needed to make life-defining decisions. She and my dad, who was seven years older, had grown up in a community built on mining and farming. Dad had served in the South Pacific in the war—he’d already seen a lot. But Mom was young and fresh, hopeful but tentative. At the time she met Dad, he was living at home on the Salli farm—twenty long, gas-guzzling miles between them—and working underground at a local iron mine.

His job there was a frustration to my mother. Young people in our area back then gathered at the Silver Dome dance hall. In the letter, my mother points out that she didn’t smoke or drink, and she’s concerned that people might think she did. She was at the Silver Dome to dance. She loved to dance, and so did my father. Mom laments in the letter, “This Monday sure is starting off a long week. Why do you have to work such a terrible shift? Won’t they let you change it?” Dad’s shifts apparently changed by the week—some weeks he wasn’t free at all in the evenings. My sweet, naive mother gets a bit sarcastic. She writes, “The most fantastic part of it is when you’ve even got to work on Saturday nights.”

She and Dad had apparently had a serious argument the night before. She’s clearly worried, afraid that something between them has gone awry. In the letter, she’s reaching out to fix it. She writes, “I hope you don’t change your mind about us. It would be pretty hard to forget now.” Then she breezily muses that she doesn’t know what she’s going to do the following summer after she graduates. “Whatever I do,” she says, as if there’s no worry at all, “you’ll have to come with me. If I marry you, I won’t let you work in the mine.” It’s striking, that she presumes to have power over him. Then she backs away from it. “Although,” she writes, “if there is no other way out, I suppose you’ll have to.”

He had to. My dad spent most of his life as a miner. He loved that work. He and Mom did get married, of course, and they made their lives right there where they’d grown up. My siblings and I were blessed with happy, small-town childhoods, surrounded by the people seated around that table in the photograph and other members of our extended family, most of whom lived within an hour or two of our childhood home. Our parents’ siblings were like second parents to us—our cousins like sisters and brothers. My mother made the choice to embrace that life, rich with family, and my siblings and I benefited.

Just before her death, Mom would muse occasionally about what might have been. She’d say, “I love my children, deeply—but I do wonder what it would have been like not to have had children.” I think it was that girl in study hall speaking, going over the options again. Mom would wonder aloud about having chosen some other life, then shrug and say, as she does at one point in the letter, “Oh well—such is life.” We’d heard her say that a thousand times.

I wish I could know the girl who wrote the letter.

The first time I read it, I was astonished to see so deeply into my mother’s mind and heart. I felt guilty, reading it, like a voyeur. I immediately sent the letter to my siblings. We live in far-flung places but get together often via video call. Most times, our visits are chitchat. But when we got together to read Mom’s letter aloud—the siblings, our spouses, several of my nieces and nephews—there was palpable energy on our faces and in our voices, a sort of heat lightning around us. I’m surprised the atmosphere didn’t ignite from our intensity.

We were blown away, to be reading and talking about Mom’s intimate, unfiltered thoughts. We began spontaneously to share stories, family history that not everyone knew. I was surprised to find that my siblings didn’t know something I’d known forever—that, because our maternal grandparents’ house was small, our mom as a teenager had slept in a smaller bed in her parents’ bedroom. Mom mentions it in the letter, telling Dad, her late night partner in crime, “My Mom put on the light about 3:30 to see if I was still in bed. I was awake, naturally, but I pretended to be asleep.” She seems pleased with herself, over having been evasive, in that way her own woman. On the video call with my sibs, the grandkids got a deepened sense of the love and family identity that tie us together.

One more story about the people in the photograph . . .

Elsie and my mother remained close friends throughout their lives. Mom would pick up the phone and dial Elsie, and when Elsie answered, Mom would say, “Hello, Beautiful.” Elsie would do the same when she called. They must have done that thousands of times over the years. When Elsie passed away, my mother was living here in Minnesota. She and I, and my visiting sister, Doreen, attended the funeral in Michigan. On the rather glum drive home after the service, we stopped at a café in a small town in Wisconsin. It was mid-day, and the place was empty. The three of us walked in, and a beaming waitress crossed to meet us. She singled my mother out with her eyes and said, “Hello, Beautiful.” Mom, Doreen, and I looked at one another in disbelief. Goose bumps literally rose on my skin. It was like Elsie was with us, acknowledging the long and loving years that she and Mom had known one another.

My beautiful mother would be happy to know that, in a sense, she co-wrote this essay with me. It was lucky chance that brought her love letter to our father all the way from that 10:05 A.M. study hall to my family’s video call in 2022. Or rather, it was luck . . . a forgotten farmhouse closet . . . and the perceptive heart of our cousin Laura, who found a letter between lovers and knew what to do with it. My mother didn’t get to see the letter again—it was my hands that tore open the envelope, standing at the mailbox, my fingers that unfolded the letter. But I think Mom would be content with it.

She spent nearly ninety years saying, “Such is life.

Donna Salli - Seated - Color

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